Herbert Gamboa’s football odyssey: From the U of Montana Grizzlies to Japan’s IBM Big Blue

After wondering about the uncertainty of the 2020 season, linebacker Herbert Gamboa found himself suddenly with an unlikely opportunity, a spot on one of Japan’s top teams, IBM Big Blue who play in the  Japanese X-League.

He did not hesitate long and spent the last couple of months playing a shortened season in the Far Eastern country where football, in international terms, is played at a high level.

The 6′, 210 lb Gamboa, whose hometown is San Clemente, California, but who is a native of Merida Yucatán, Mexico, racked up 28 tackles and a sack in only three games during this year’s pandemic shortened season. Even though his time in Japan was short Gamboa enjoyed being immersed Japan’s fanatical football culture.

“Football in Japan is definitely on another level than Europe the reason being is that Japan has college sports. The Japanese are far more developed in their football IQ which is a huge part of the game. In Japan players have to tryout for x-league teams and cuts are made every week in fall camp, which makes it feel like a real professional league. Even if you’re American you have to come everyday to compete or they will let you go.”

Gamboa came to Japan after three seasons in Europe, starting out with the Lazio Ducks of Italy. He followed that up with two dominant seasons with the Prague Black Panthers. In 2019, the toughness and athleticism of the University of Montana (NCAA D1 FCS) product was one full display as he was named the Austrian Football League Offensive MVP. That’s right the versatile Gamboa played running back for his squad and rushed for 1,709 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Photo: IBM Big Blue

James Brooks, one of the star defensive players for the IBM Big Blue was the Black Panthers defensive coordinator in 2019. After seeing Gamboa’s tenacity on the field, Brooks made sure to get him over to Japan. Herbert Gamboa on signing with the IBM Big Blue:

 “I came to Japan by the way of my defensive coordinator in Prague James Brooks which led me to sign with big blue for the 2020 season.”

Before he was running through would be tacklers in Europe, Mexican-American Gamboa was a fierce linebacker for the San Clemente high school Tritons in California. After a strong senior season which included 12 wins, Gamboa chose to take his talents up north to the University of Montana Grizzlies (NCAA D1 FCS).

The undersized linebacker ended up being a two-year starter for the Grizzlies. His senior year he was named a pre-season All-American and first team all-conference. He finished his illustrious career with 211 career tackles. His Grizzlies squad enjoyed a lot of success during Gamboa’s tenure making the second round of the FCS playoffs three times.

“My football experience at Montana was incredible, every home game the stadium was packed, not a seat was empty and that is hard to find at the FCS level. I was competing against NFL guys like Carson Wentz, Cooper Kupp, and Kendrick Bourne week in and week out.”

Herbert Gamboa was among the rushing leaders playing for the Prague Black Panthers in the Austria Football League Photo: David Hofman

After college, Gamboa was determined to chase his dreams of being a pro. His impressive college career and strong pro day performance was enough to get him a minicamp invitation from the NFL and workouts with the CFL. But after a few months of working out with different professional teams, it seemed as if he was done with football.

“After college I went back to California and prepared for my pro day. Afterward I had the opportunity to be invited to the Kansas City Chiefs mini-camp in 2016. After being let go by the Chiefs I headed to Vancouver for some individual workouts with the BC Lions but that was the end of the road for me.”

Gamboa was a standout linebacker of the University of Montana Grizzlies Photo: Kurt Wilson, the Missoulian

After playing for the all-star team Europe Warriors in his home country of Mexico, Gamboa used his new connections from the international squad to join the Lazio Ducks in Rome. In Italy, Gamboa started his football career abroad which seems to be far from over.

Now that his X-League season is finished, the former Grizzly is back on the move. Gamboa will join the Osas Rivas in Madrid, Spain as an assistant coach. We wish him luck on his next football adventure!

Alex is a former professional American football player who is now studying in London. His goal writing for AFI is to stay involved with the game that has given him so much. Alex enjoys covering leagues and players and sharing different football